David Shoebridge
Can America be trusted on submarines?

Australia’s defence force should be focused on defending Australia, not threatening our neighbours. This seems like an obvious statement, but it is in fact highly contentious within defence leadership and directly contrary to the conclusions of Australia’s most recent Defence Strategic Review. That review adopts the goal of Australia being able to engage in “impactful projection” against countries to our far north.

At the centre of this push is the $368 billion AUKUS submarine deal. The purpose of the AUKUS nuclear submarines is to project Australian military force 4000 kilometres and more from our most northern shores, into the South China Sea.

To be clear, these submarines are not intended to protect Australia and Australians from any threat of force from foreign countries. Despite the rhetoric on defending Australia, their sole purpose is to threaten China as part of an overall United States military force in that region. A handful of nuclear submarines only work if they are enmeshed with the US military, inevitably bringing Australians into the next US war in the region.

After 50 years of US wars, in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to see how this is in our national interest, especially as any war with China could readily escalate into a nuclear conflict.

The aggressive and destabilising impact of this plan is reason enough to oppose the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. However, even on its own terms, where it is allegedly about strengthening Australia’s defence capability, the AUKUS submarine deal is risky and expensive.

I recently returned from a trip to Washington where I took the opportunity to discuss this issue, subject to Chatham House rules, with some leading experts in the field. With all we now know, just what are the political, industrial and military risks in this plan?

The Albanese government has committed to acquiring eight nuclear-powered submarines via the AUKUS deal. The first three to five of these submarines are meant to be Virginia-class submarines purchased from the US. The last three to five submarines that make up the eight-boat fleet will be AUKUS SSN nuclear submarines built in Adelaide from a yet-to-be-finalised British design.

The first Australian-operated US Virginia-class submarine is planned to arrive in the early 2030s, with the next seven boats coming online over the following 25 years.

This is a significant commitment from the US, with five nuclear submarines representing about 10 per cent of their total attack-class submarine fleet. It costs more than US$4.3 billion ($6.7 billion) and takes six years for the US to build a Virginia-class submarine. While the US has plans to build two submarines a year going forward, the current US industrial capacity is stretched to produce 1.2 boats a year.

This, together with historical production factors, is causing significant concern in US defence circles that there will be a “valley” in the number of US nuclear-powered attack submarines over the next decade. It is estimated that in the early 2030s the US will be 20 boats short of its targeted fleet size. That’s exactly the same time in which Australia will be asking for its first submarines from the same production line.

In order to meet the combined need of the US Navy and the AUKUS deal, US production rates will have to increase from 1.2 boats a year to 2.2 boats a year. Yet there is no plan or spending commitment to make this production jump a reality.

At best there is a hazy commitment from Australia to give $3 billion to support US shipbuilding which, even if delivered, would go nowhere near to addressing the scale of the industrial shortfall.

To add to these concerns, the number of US attack submarines currently requiring maintenance is almost double the historical average, running at almost 37 per cent of their fleet. This significantly reduces their operational readiness.

At the end of the day, countries have interests not friends. The US will only approve transfer of their precious few nuclear submarines to Australia if it is in its interest. Whatever is said by President Joe Biden in 2023, by the early 2030s it is extremely hard to see how those in power will agree to any transfer of nuclear submarines to Australia, given its own shortfalls and needs.

This is a political reality that has yet to be acknowledged by the Albanese government. The political risk is heightened by the fact the final approval to transfer a nuclear submarine will require both a future US administration to approve and a future US congressional vote. Anyone watching US politics in 2023 would be brave to gamble on that playing out with any certainty in 2033. Meanwhile, Australia is spending billions on this pipedream.

Our projected budget spending on AUKUS submarines by the end of the
2032-33 financial year is $57.6 billion, all of which is lost without US political approval. That’s a hell of a gamble on a selfless vote from a Congress that can’t agree to even the basics of running its own government. This makes the almost $5 billion wasted on not getting French submarines look like a bargain.

Assuming that, against all odds, the politics come good and the boats are delivered, what will be the military impact? Some time in the mid 2040s we might have, at most, maybe five Virginia-class nuclear submarines. The standard Virginia-class nuclear submarine has the capacity to carry up to 12 Tomahawk cruise missiles as their critical strike capacity, together with a complement of torpedoes.

Taking into account crew rotation, maintenance requirements and transit times, even with a maximum fleet of eight nuclear submarines, the best-case scenario for 2054 will see two or three nuclear submarines on station in the East China Sea at any one time.

What does that bring to a major conflict? It brings 24 or maybe 36 Tomahawk missiles with 450 kilogram conventional warheads. Each such warhead is enough to destroy a moderate sized building or potentially sink a ship. Once these missiles are fired, the submarines then need to return to Australia to restock before they can return, weeks later, to any conflict.

Who in their right mind would spend $368 billion, with all the opportunity costs that brings for civil or even other military programs, to deliver 36 bombs to a fight? To put it in perspective, that’s less than the payload of a single B-52 bomber. Yet this is what the Australian public has been signed up to, and that’s in a “best-case” scenario for the war planners, where we actually get the boats. Viewed from this narrow military point of view, it is an obscene misallocation of national resources.

No matter how you look at this project, it’s a disaster. We squander our wealth, antagonise our neighbours, invite further escalation from China, all to deliver a highly speculative and marginal military asset to a future conflict. It’s the kind of project that only an insubstantial spin doctor like former prime minister Scott Morrison could invent. Oh, that’s right: he did.

Meanwhile, we are ignoring urgent and real risks at home and in our region, not least of which is climate change. While the prime minister has been loudly cheering on endless military expenditure as the strategy to keep Australians safe, it has refused to release the, no doubt, terrifying report from the Office of National Intelligence about the security threat from climate change.

Imagine if we had $368 billion to spend on decarbonising our economy, strengthening our neighbour’s climate readiness and educating our children to be the best and brightest in the world. Imagine how much safer and more secure that would make us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Can America be trusted on submarines?".

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